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"Stand your ground and pour": How Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver saved GABF

Garrett Oliver mans the booth at GABF 2011.
Garrett Oliver mans the booth at GABF 2011.

Aisle after aisle, table after table, there was one thing about the 2012 Great American Beer Festival that was different from the event in previous years: There were brewery reps, brewers and, in many cases, brewery owners themselves staffing their booths, hanging out and answering questions. It was a refreshing change that may have come about because of a letter from Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

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The issue has been a sore subject for years at the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which organizes the festival; the BA has beseeched its members to stick around and interact with their customers, rather than leaving everything to the volunteers who work the GABF. Meanwhile, many brewers have traditionally used the festival as a way to socialize with colleagues, try other beers from around the country and generally have a good time in a great city.

Arguments on both sides make sense. But the lack of brewery representation has always bothered Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver, who is well-known for maintaining a strong (and well-dressed) presence at his own booth year after year.

This time around, however, he made his feelings very clear by posting a message on the BA's private message board for brewers.

"In my 21 years, I have worked my booth for hours of every single session of GABF," he wrote. "I'm older than most of you, and I'll be honest -- this doesn't get any easier. At the end of each session, I know that my knees are going to hurt and my voice is going to be shot, and I'm going to be starving. That's the way it is. It's once a year, people, for a few hours. It's time for you to pay back the devotion that's given you the opportunity to do the very best thing in the world, in the very best place, and at the very best time. SO PLEASE STAND YOUR GROUND AND POUR." (You can see the full letter below.)

Shortly after this year's GABF ended, we asked Oliver to elaborate on his feelings and the experience. Here's what he said.

Westword: Why is it important for brewers and brewer reps to be at their booths?

Garrett Oliver: I often make the point that craft beer is about people, not just about liquid. It's the passion of America's brewers that makes the GABF and the American craft-brewing scene as wonderfully vibrant as they are. So to have a GABF where the brewers aren't present defeats the entire spirit of the enterprise. Even if you're a brewpub brewer from 1,000 miles away, if you're making great beer, the people who are trying your beer still want to meet you and talk about you. It's not just about the one ounce of beer in the glass.

Are you actually able to find the time and space to talk to people about the beers during the crush of GABF?

It's not easy, but you can make the time, yes. I'm hoarse now from all the talking I did last week. But it's all good! As a brewer, you're also there to listen. I've had home brewers tell me about Brooklyn beers they've cloned, younger craft brewers tell me that we inspired them to go into brewing -- there are so many wonderful stories. It would be a real shame not to be there to hear them.

What was the feedback you got from your letter?

It was actually tremendous. I had dozens of brewers either tell me directly or e-mail me to say how much they appreciated the sentiments expressed. One young brewer told me that he'd abandoned his booth early last year, but that I was right, and that this year he was going to work the booth hard. And he did -- I saw him there pouring. The GABF crew was so appreciative that they actually got me a rubber mat to stand on!

Did you get the feeling that it worked?

According to people I've talked to, they seem to feel that it had a definite effect, which is certainly gratifying. It's hard work, no doubt about it, and for those of us used to sea-level air, it's particularly tough. But I also think that everyone who stayed and poured enjoyed feeling the energy of the beer fans. If you ever get tired of talking to your own customers and fans, you need to do some soul-searching about whether you're in the right business.

Do you have any suggestions for improvements to GABF that would result in more brewery/customer interactions?

That's a good question, and I'm on the Events Committee, so we're always looking to see how we can improve things. But the action really is at the brewery booths, so if the brewers are there, the interactions will happen. Next year we'll focus on asking the brewers to actually physically pour as much beer as they can. People love having their beer poured by the person who made it. It's pretty much what this whole thing is about.

Continue reading for Oliver's full letter.

Fellow Brewers,

"Wow, I can't believe you're actually here pouring your beer!" I hear that every year. This week will mark my 21st year judging the Great American Beer Festival. It will also be my 21st year pouring my beer at the GABF. After all this time, I know a few things about brewers and about GABF. Frankly, we go mostly to see each other and to taste each other's beer. A lot of us see each other maybe twice a year, and that can make it hard to spend hours stuck behind your booth, saying the same thing over and over again.

But let me tell you all something. Getting to be a craft brewer, today, at the most exciting time for beer that the world has ever seen, is a true privilege. The people who gave you that privilege are the people who come to GABF. They come to GABF not just for tiny sips of tasty beers -- they are there to see YOU. Yes, you. They are there to ask you questions, to tell you, you things, to have their pictures taken with their favorite brewers, maybe even to tell you that you inspired them to get into brewing. When they come to see you, WILL YOU BE THERE?

In my 21 years, I have worked my booth for hours of every single session of GABF. I'm older than most of you, and I'll be honest -- this doesn't get any easier. At the end of each session, I know that my knees are going to hurt and my voice is going to be shot, and I'm going to be starving. That's the way it is. It's once a year, people, for a few hours. It's time for you to pay back the devotion that's given you the opportunity to do the very best thing in the world, in the very best place, and at the very best time. SO PLEASE STAND YOUR GROUND AND POUR.

I'm not saying that we all have to martyr ourselves. I want dinner too, I want to come by your booth and taste your beer, and I'll see you later down at Falling Rock. The volunteers are wonderful, but if you walk away from your booth and leave it without a brewer all evening, it's just plain wrong. So don't be a wuss. Stand proud behind your beer and do what we came to do. And when your knees start to hurt, remember how damned lucky you are to be here.

See you on the floor,

Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster


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